As I mentioned in my last post, my best guesstimate about the judicial races is that they will pretty much go as the straight ticket voting goes. However, as the election of 2012 pointed out, that can be a really close margin.
I highly suggest that those of you with vested interests in the Criminal Court races type up your own lists of recommendations and make sure that you get them out to your voting friends and family before early voting starts in two weeks. Most importantly, make sure that family and friends take time to vote DOWN BALLOT!
Below are my recommendations. Some of my decisions were tough calls. Others weren't.
County Court at Law # 16 - Linda Garcia (R) vs. Darrell Jordan (D)
This Court is a newly created entity and this is the first election for the Judge of this Court. Republican Linda Garcia is the current sitting judge, after having been appointed to the position. Judge Garcia has an impressive resume and background in criminal law. Prior to becoming judge, she was an Assistant District Attorney in Harris County over two different periods of time. She was highly respected in her position as an ADA and well liked. In between her two tours of duty, she served as a member of the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, where Grits for Breakfast referred to her as "one of the best and most enlightened members ever to serve on the parole board."
As I mentioned, when he ran for judge in 2010, I'm not a big fan of Darrell Jordan for personal reasons, over a business transaction. That incident was quite a while back, so I'll just leave it at that.
Regardless of whatever I think about Jordan, Judge Garcia has many more years of experience in the Criminal Justice System that speak for herself. Her compassion and integrity from all sides of the System make her easily the best choice in this race.
Recommendation: Linda Garcia (R)
174th District Court -- Katherine McDaniel (R) vs. Hazel Jones (D)
The 174th District Court is up for grabs since Judge Ruben Guerrero is not running for office again. The race pits Senior District Court Chief Katherine McDaniel against former 338th Judge Hazel Jones.
I've known both candidates since 1999 when I started at the D.A.'s Office. Katherine and I were in the same division when I was District Court chief there, so I've worked alongside her as a prosecutor and we've had cases against each other since I've been on the defense side. She is one of the hardest working, ethical and intelligent prosecutors in the building. She embodies being tough but fair, and she works hard to make sure she is making all of the right decisions.
Although I don't know Hazel as well as Katherine, I like her very much as a person. She was elected in the 2008 Democratic sweep, but only held onto her bench for one term. During her brief tenure, there were some complaints from both sides of the bench about some of her court policies, although I never had a problem when I appeared in her court.
All in all, however, Katherine is the stronger candidate in this race. She goes above and beyond to ensure that Justice is done on all cases she handles and she would have an excellent judicial temperament.
Recommendation: Katherine McDaniel (R)
176th District Court -- Stacey Bond (R) vs. Niki Harmon (D)
Incumbent Judge Stacey Bond made a very strong (and positive) impression on the CJC during her first term in the 176th. Her years as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney have served her very well in making thoughtful and thorough consideration of all matters before her. Her courtroom is a pleasant place to practice (even with a mildly surly coordinator) and Judge Bond is kind and compassionate towards everyone who appears before her. Most importantly, Judge Bond has illustrated time and again that prosecutors and defense attorneys are on absolutely equal footing when they appear before her, and she's not afraid to make the prosecution mad if they've got a problem with that. She has courage, compassion and intelligence. What more could anyone ask from a judge?
Nikita "Niki" Harmon is an attorney and municipal court judge, who I don't believe I've ever met. Although I don't have anything negative to say about her, I do have to point out that it would be a big leap from the Class C misdemeanor dockets that a Muni Judge handles to hearing Capital Murders. Experience matters on a District Court bench, and Judge Bond's experience is proven and effective. This recommendation is no contest.
Recommendation: Stacey Bond (R)
177th District Court -- Ryan Patrick (R) vs. Robert Johnson (D)
There was a lot of grumbling when Ryan Patrick was appointed (and subsequently elected) to the 177th Bench in 2012. He was relatively young for the position, and some in the defense bar were ready to pounce upon him because of the fact that his father is Lieutenant Governor. Over the past four years, Judge Patrick has won over the skeptics by just doing a really good job.
He is friendly, knowledgable, and fair. He stays on top of all incoming legal decisions from the higher courts, and applies them to the cases in front of him easily. He is willing to hear all arguments before him, reserving judgment until they are complete, and he has a keen awareness about the meaning of Justice.
Robert Johnson is a local attorney that I know in passing, but I don't see too much of him at the CJC. He practices both criminal and civil law. As I've written here time and again, criminal law is not a part-time job. There's just too much on the line to have someone who only practices criminal law part of the time to be a judge.
Recommendation: Ryan Patrick (R)
178th District Court -- Phil Gommels (R) vs. Kelli Johnson (D)
The 178th is also an open bench, with sitting Judge David Mendoza choosing not to run for a third term. I'm a big fan of Judge Mendoza and I'm sad to see him go. Fortunately, there are two very capable candidates running for the bench.
Republican candidate Phil Gommels is a former prosecutor and a current defense attorney. He's a very nice guy who diligently represents his clients. His prior military experience and his Board position with the Harris County Criminal Lawyers' Association give him a solid resume for a candidate.
Democratic candidate Kelli Johnson is a senior felony District Court Chief who is also a good friend of mine. She and I started at the Office at the same time and she is a talented prosecutor who is liked and respected by the defense bar.
In my opinion, both of these candidates are qualified to hold the position, but Kelli has a significant advantage here when it comes to experience and seniority. Kelli has been practicing over twice as long as Phil and has more experience with a wider berth of cases.
Recommendation: Kelli Johnson (D)
179th District Court -- Kristin Guiney (R) vs. Randy Roll (D)
Like her fellow freshman judges, Stacey Bond and Ryan Patrick, Republican Incumbent Kristin Guiney has also become a favorite judge at the CJC. She has brought her strengths of intelligence, common sense, and a bizarre desire to do legal research to the bench. Guiney has worked hard to do more than just be a sitting judge. She has worked hard to do research that helps make the Criminal Justice System better in Harris County. Whether it be studying docket management techniques or outside rehabilitation programs, she adheres to the principle that there is always something that can be done to make things better. She's been an exemplary judge in her first term.
Democratic candidate Randy Roll is the former judge of the 179th and is looking to reclaim his bench, which he lost in 2012 after serving only one term. Although I don't have anything against Roll personally, he just wasn't a very good judge during his first year. His behavior raised concerns from both the prosecution and the defense. He was known to make strange statements from the bench that indicated that he was much more concerned with keeping his docket numbers low than he was about actual justice in the courtroom. His campaign literature has been implicitly dishonest, he initially claimed to have never been reversed in trial, until it was pointed out that this was a lie. He then modified his literature to say that he had never been reversed in trial "as to guilt/innocence." A judge getting reversed is going to happen from time to time, but Roll's willingness to mislead voters is concerning.
In the interest of full disclosure, Kristin Guiney is someone I consider one of my closest friends, but this is not a close contest.
Recommendation: Kristin Guiney (R)
337th District Court -- Renee Magee (R) vs. Herb Ritchie (D)
As in the 179th race, Incumbent Republican Judge Renee Magee is also running against the candidate she unseated in the 2012 election. Democratic candidate Herb Ritchie held the bench for one term after the 2008 election. I've actually tried cases as a defense attorney in front of both of them, which makes this race a very tough one to call.
I feel a personal loyalty to Judge Magee going back to 1998. I interned for her an now-Justice Elsa Alcala when they were the prosecutors in the 209th District Court. She recommended me for my job at the D.A.'s Office. When these candidates faced off in 2012, I didn't make a call on who I would pick because I had pending cases in the court. When Judge Magee took the bench, I was one of the first attorneys to try a case in front of her. I've tried murder cases in front of both her and Ritchie.
In the end, Ritchie was ultimately more neutral on the bench. Although Judge Magee has improved over the years, there are still some remnants of prosecutorial leanings when it comes to trial. This is improving and the overall atmosphere of the court is great.
On the bench, Ritchie definitely played no favorites when it came to his rulings and he gave careful consideration to all issues before him. He suppressed a significant portion of a murder confession in a case I tried with him, but did so on grounds other than which I had drawn his attention to. His punishments on cases varied to the degree that it was impossible to predict what he might do on any given case where he was deciding punishment. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
At the end of the day, I'd rather try a case to Ritchie.
Recommendation: Herb Ritchie (D)
338th District Court -- Brock Thomas (R) vs. Ramona Franklin (D)
Republican Incumbent Judge Brock Thomas was the only judge who lost his bench in the Democrat Sweep of 2008 only to reclaim it in 2012, and I'm glad he did. Judge Thomas is an outstanding judge. He is no nonsense and quiet on the bench, but he holds everyone in his court to a high standard -- both prosecutors and defense attorneys. He once pointed out to me that I had inadvertently put the wrong date on a Motion for Funds to Hire an Investigator on a case. That attention to detail is funny, but it also illustrates the close attention to detail that he pays to each case. The level of scrutiny that he gives to all matters before him are exemplary and he makes no decisions off the cuff. He is wiling to give second chances and he's heavily involved in the mental health courts, but he can also cut through anyone before him who is just making excuses.
Ramona Franklin is a defense attorney who worked briefly for the District Attorney's Office. I know her in passing, but not well at all. I honestly don't know her well enough to say whether or not she's qualified to be a judge.
I do, however, know that Judge Thomas is doing a fantastic job and deserves to be re-elected.
Recommendation: Brock Thomas (R)
339th District Court -- Mary McFaden (R) vs. Maria Jackson (D)
Incumbent Judge Maria T. Jackson is the only Democrat running for re-election for her bench. She was elected in the 2008 and managed to hold onto her position in 2012. Eight years after first taking the bench, she is running against senior Felony District Court Chief Mary McFaden.
I've worked several cases in Judge Jackson's over the past several years and she's a very nice lady. It's a good court to work in and she gives the defense as much consideration as the prosecution.
Mary and I have been friends since she started at the Office. She is a hardworking and honest prosecutor.
The two candidates could not be more different. Many at the D.A.'s Office feel that Judge Jackson is too lenient, while many in the Defense Bar feel that Mary would be too tough. Mary is a tough prosecutor and her recommendations during plea bargains are high, but I've never found her to be anything other than honest and above-board when dealing with her on cases. She's a good friend of mine and I will vote for her, but it isn't because I have anything negative to say about Judge Jackson.
351st District Court -- Mark Ellis (R) vs. George Powell (D)
Incumbent Republican Judge Mark Ellis was the lone survivor of the 2008 election that swept out every other Republican judge on a criminal bench, and he easily held onto his bench in 2012. He's actually been on the bench since 1997, and in my opinion, he's a good judge. He's worked consistently with Mental Health Court and he knows the law.
George Powell is a longtime defense attorney and a friend, as well. He's certainly a qualified candidate, but he doesn't have Judge Ellis' experience.
Recommendation: Mark Ellis